Seniors who walk an extra 500 steps a day have a lower risk of heart disease, study finds


A new study suggests adults over the age of 70 who walk an extra 500 steps per day have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke or heart failure.

Researchers from the American Heart Association studied 452 people who wore an accelerometer on their hip — which is similar to a pedometer – to measure their steps. They wore the devices for a minimum of 10 hours over at least three days.

The average age of the participants was 78 years old and their average step count was roughly 3,500 steps per day.

“Steps are an easy way to measure physical activity, and more daily steps were associated with a lower risk of having a cardiovascular disease-related event in older adults,” said Erin E. Dooley, Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health and lead researcher of the study. “However, most studies have focused on early-to-midlife adults with daily goals of 10,000 or more steps, which may not be attainable for older individuals.”

During the three-and-a-half-year period after measuring the daily step count of each participant, researchers say 7.5 per cent of people “experienced a cardiovascular disease event, such as coronary heart disease, stroke or heart failure.”

Looking at the step-count data, researchers were able to make some conclusions.

Adults who took about 4,500 steps per day had a 77 per cent lower risk of a cardiovascular event compared with those who took fewer than 2,000 steps a day, the study found. Additionally, almost 12 per cent of participants who walked less than 2,000 steps per day experienced a cardiovascular event versus 3.5 per cent who took 4,500 steps, suggesting those who walked the least were the most likely to have heart problems.

As for what was behind the correlation, the study notes it’s unclear if higher daily total step counts actually prevented or delayed heart disease, or if lower step counts in some participants indicated an underlying disease.

Still, Dooley said the results suggested every additional 500 steps seniors took per day incrementally lowered their risk of heart disease by 14 per cent.

“It’s important to maintain physical activity as we age, however, daily step goals should also be attainable. We were surprised to find that every additional quarter of a mile, or 500 steps, of walking had such a strong benefit to heart health,” Dooley said. “While we do not want to diminish the importance of higher intensity physical activity, encouraging small increases in the number of daily steps also has significant cardiovascular benefits. If you are an older adult over the age of 70, start with trying to get 500 more steps per day.”

The American Heart Association says everyone can improve their heart health by following eight guidelines: eating healthy food, being physically active, not smoking, getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy weight, and controlling cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure levels.

According to Health Canada, about 14 Canadian adults age 20 and older with heart disease die every hour and the death rate is 6.3 times higher among adults age 40 and older with diagnosed heart failure than for those without.

American Heart Association researchers note the study is limited in some ways. The accelerometers used in the study can’t measure other physical activity that may be important to heart health, such as bicycling and swimming. Participants were more likely to have had at least some post-secondary education compared to the overall Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities sample, and were primarily white women, which may limit the study’s generalizability. The study also only measured steps at one point in time and researchers “were unable to examine if changes in steps over time impacted” risk of heart disease. 

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